What’s The Difference? Junk Food, Guilty Pleasures, and Popcorn Entertainment
Get amped up for an Electric Editorial. To what measure is a Guilty Pleasure?
It’s a perplexing question, really. The term ‘guilty pleasure’ has become exceptionally popular. It’s used so much, and by so many people, that the meaning of the term has really become pretty diluted. To the point where one man’s guilty pleasure is easily another’s absolute garbage. And it can be difficult to determine what exactly constitutes such a pleasure as ‘guilty’. Everyone has their own ideas, of course, as I have my own.
At some point, I started referring to things – movies, anime, games, whatever – as “Junk Food.” Those around me naturally assumed I was talking about the equivalent of a “Popcorn Flick” – a term used to describe a movie where you “shut your brain off” and just have fun with it, not thinking about things critically. But that isn’t really what I was thinking. Not entirely. And when I point this out, I was asked if I meant a Guilty Pleasure. But here’s the thing. I don’t consider it a guilty pleasure if I don’t feel the slightest tinge of “guilt” while watching it. So that wasn’t really what I was looking for, either. Though I know the two can be easily confused due to the context of the term ‘guilty pleasure’ when used outside of entertainment, as it does usually refer to actual junk food. I eventually settled on the idea that a piece of media being “Junk Food” really is its own category.
I think the thing that helped me really figure it out was when I started to get back into anime around 2014 – 2015, after having taken a break for a couple years. But the first thing that was recommended to me at the time was a little series called Date A Live. While I don’t dare consider myself a veteran by any means, I am no stranger to anime. I know the tropes. I know the conventions. I know a fair amount of the common references even from shows I’ve not watched. Usually, because they’re just so extremely popular that learning about them can’t be avoided. If you watch Date A Live, what you’re going to get is absolutely nothing groundbreaking. It’s a straightforward Action/Harem with an interesting premise.
It’s a very flawed series in a number of ways. Especially the second season. It falls victim to bouts of awkward pacing, some of the scenarios are pretty cringe-worthy, and the plot gets fairly convoluted after a certain point (though the anime hasn’t really gotten there, just yet). All in a package that really doesn’t bring anything especially new or challenging in any way. But I find myself enjoying the show even despite all of those pretty glaring problems, and that’s what ultimately helped it click.
By no stretch of the imagination is Date A Live a particularly great series. One could even argue that calling it “good” is a stretch (and if that’s the case, just call me Mister Fantastic). But it’s enjoyable. Is it because of its obvious flaws that it is so? No. It’s enjoyable despite them. And that’s where the difference comes from. When I think of a Guilty Pleasure, I think of a show where every time I go to watch it, I have this nagging feeling in the back of my head, telling me not to. But there’s another part of me that’s saying to do it anyway, in open defiance to the cautious part of my brain. At least for me, I feel like a Guilty Pleasure is something you watch because it’s bad. Things like The Room or Attack of the Clones (better known as the best Sci-Fi Romantic Comedy ever).
Junk Food is a movie, game, series, or whatever that I can acknowledge is fundamentally flawed or at least not doing anything particularly good for me (meaning it’s not especially challenging, insightful, or original). Because of this, it’s difficult to really broadly recommend it. But it actually has its charms and genuinely redeeming qualities that make it thoroughly enjoyable on some level. So you can’t say to pass on it. And while it is harmless, it’s usually more enjoyable than something that’s just harmless. Returning to the Date A Live example, the series is graced with great action sequences, a striking visual style, an interesting high concept, witty dialogue, a few memorable characters, and a degree of heart that is rare in its genre. Is it The World God Only Knows? Absolutely not. But this ain’t bad, either. So I’m once again thrilled that another season is on the way.
Clearly the step-child of this discussion, “Popcorn Flick,” honestly isn’t much of a rating, I don’t think. It essentially just means you don’t have to think very hard to watch it. It’s basically an omission of critical thinking. And, really, that could apply to both of these. Heck, some of my favorite movies are Popcorn Flicks. The Avengers isn’t exactly a deeply introspective character drama. It’s an action film about a bunch of people flying and jumping around in brightly-colored outfits, punching and shooting things. And while I find that movie to be genuinely great, it’s still Junk Food and a Popcorn Flick. But by the same token, it goes without saying that a mindless, more or less objectively bad series of movies, like the live-action Transformers films, also qualify. A lot of people who defend the Transformers films do so by referring to them by this category. And you know what? More power to them. But barring the first movie, the Transformers films are pretty much all demonstrably bad. And a lot of people enjoy watching them because of this, making those movies Guilty Pleasures in that regard. Yet that doesn’t disqualify them from being Popcorn Flicks. At the end of it all, there’s a level of entertainment that can be derived from them by simply not thinking about them at all.
The point is that a “Popcorn Flick” will wind up being Junk Food, more often than not, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Heck, it could even apply to things much higher up the tier list than Junk Food. There are some movies that have a ton of actually fascinating layers and you could still shut your brain off and enjoy them on surface level. A lot of animated movies and shows are really good at this because they have to entertain the children, as well as the adults who have to supervise them. Pixar, in particular, has mastered this. Seriously. Go back and watch Toy Story again. See how many jokes are sneaked in there just for the adults, watching. But you can definitely enjoy that film without thinking about it deeply because it’s otherwise just an enjoyable movie when taken at face value, alone.
And that’s basically my take on things. Feel free to share your own take on things. I know there are some out there who might consider a Guilty Pleasure to be something more akin to how I described a Popcorn Flick, specifically because they don’t require thought. Those more interested in constantly being challenged by their media, and therefore enjoying things without it may feel “guilty” as a result, for example. I get that. And there is always the question of where things that are bad on purpose fit in. Thoughts? What are some of your own favorite Junk Food shows? Date A Live aside, I’ve made no secret of my love for Dagashi Kashi. What about your personal guilty pleasures? That’s always a fun topic. Anyway, thanks for reading, as always, folks. And remember to keep up the awesome.